NYC public defender groups in dire financial need, calling for $425M funding increase: ‘We’re in the crosshairs of serious disaster’

NYC public defender groups in dire financial need, calling for $425M funding increase: ‘We’re in the crosshairs of serious disaster’

New York City’s six major public defender groups are in such dire financial straits they fear they’ll collapse if they don’t see a $425 million funding increase in the next municipal budget, the Daily News has learned.

The six groups — the Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Brooklyn Defender Services, Queens Defenders, Bronx Defender Services and Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem — provide free court representation to low-income New Yorkers in criminal and civil matters. But due to a deepening staffing crisis, the groups’ lawyer ranks are growing so thin that they are scrambling to fulfill their duties.

To address that, the groups will submit a request to the City Council on Monday that calls for the nine-figure funding bump.

New York City’s six major public defender groups provide free court representation to low-income New Yorkers in both criminal and civil matters.

Of the requested increase, $300 million would be for the groups’ civil practices and the practices of dozens of smaller partner providers, according to paperwork shared with The News. The remaining $125 million would be for their criminal practices.

That would be on top of the roughly $600 million the groups currently receive per year from the city, a pot that also funds appellate defender groups and some private attorneys representing low-income New Yorkers.

Without the funding boost, Adriene Holder, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s civil practice, said she fears her group’s basic operations will falter. The real-life consequence of that, she added, is tens of thousands of indigent New Yorkers going without representation in housing, immigration and criminal courts.

“We are in the crosshairs of serious disaster here,” said Holder, who has worked at Legal Aid for over three decades. “I want to believe that we are able to sustain things, but, yes, we are at a breaking point.”

Adriene Holder, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s civil practice, is pictured in 2007.

Mayor Adams and the City Council are in negotiations over next fiscal year’s municipal budget, which is due by July 1.

Adams’ first $102.7 billion budget proposal unveiled in January would keep city funding effectively flat for the public defender groups.

Adams spokesmen did not return requests for comment last week, but the mayor has voiced support for jacking up funding for public defenders as a way to help clear extensive court backlogs. He has said the responsibility for allocating that funding mostly lies with the state Legislature, though.

“Public defenders are overwhelmed and need our help immediately,” he testified in Albany last month. “The state must make a major investment in them now or risk depriving defendants of their constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

A spokesman for Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said her Democratic conference will push for more public defender money from both ends, saying “the city and state must partner to provide increased funding.”

The cause for the city public defender crisis is varied.

Pay parity agreements for public defense attorneys, brokered in 2019 under the de Blasio administration, were shelved because of the pandemic, and city funding for the groups has effectively stayed the same since then as a result.

That has kept wages stagnant — the starting salary for public defenders in the city is still about $75,000 — prompting many to leave for the private sector, where they can earn more at a time of soaring costs of living due to economic factors like inflation.

Mayor Adams and the City Council are in negotiations over next fiscal year’s municipal budget, which is due by July 1.

Legal Aid, which is the city’s largest group, currently has 328 vacancies out of the group’s more than 2,000 positions.

Stan German, a criminal defense attorney who leads the New York County Defender Services, said his group is also seeing troubling staff shortages.

Providers like the New York County Defender Services are struggling to fill vacancies because their wages are not competitive when compared to counterparts in other cities, like Oakland, Calif., where starting salaries for public defenders top $100,000, German said.

The city’s comparatively low wages is also what’s driving lots of his current staff to leave, German said. And when attorneys leave, German noted that their cases must be reassigned to colleagues who are already struggling to handle massive workloads.

“It’s a vicious cycle that everybody is facing,” he said.

A chunk of the funding increase the groups are requesting would go toward making the city’s public defense wages more competitive, reps for the groups said. It would also go towards expanding the groups’ staff, and bridging funding shortfalls for increasingly expensive provider contracts.

Discovery reforms enacted by the state Legislature to speed up court proceedings have also caused additional expenses for the groups that need to be funded, the groups say.

New York City’s six major public defender groups provide free court representation to low-income New Yorkers in both criminal and civil matters.

Meantime, the need for public defense services has only increased since the pandemic, especially on the civil side, which is perhaps the sector that has felt the staffing crisis the most. That’s in part because landlords have filed thousands of eviction cases since the state eviction moratorium and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program expired last year.

According to data from the state Office of Court Administration, public defender providers had to decline more than 10,000 eviction cases between March 2022 and this past January — meaning tenants in those cases went without representation. That’s in spite of the fact that the city has a “Right to Counsel” program that’s supposed to ensure universal access to legal representation for housing court defendants.

“We are at this point where we just can’t take all the cases that are coming through, and it kills us because we know how important it is for people,” Holder said. “Legal representation is the difference between people being able to stay in there homes and becoming homeless.”

Speaker Adrienne Adams

Indeed, Maria Carrasquilla, an Elmhurst, Queens, resident who lost her custodian job during the pandemic, said Legal Aid helped her stay in her home after her landlord sought to evict her in 2022 when she couldn’t afford her monthly $1,746 rent.

Legal Aid secured a Section 8 voucher for Carrasquilla, 64, that lowered her rent so significantly she can now afford it. She said she doesn’t think she would still have her apartment without the legal assistance.

“This kept me up at night. I couldn’t sleep,” she said in Spanish.

Unlike his colleagues on the civil side, German said criminal public defenders in the city have not had to deny defendants representations so far. But he said his attorneys are spread so thin they sometimes have to represent more than 50 clients at a time.

“We are meeting our contractual obligations to provide representation, but the question isn’t if intake is falling through the cracks,” he said. “The question is: What does quality representation look like? How can you provide quality representation under those circumstances? Ultimately, quality representation is what suffers.”

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Memorial held for victims of Jehovah’s Witness shooting in Hamburg, Germany

Memorial held for victims of Jehovah’s Witness shooting in Hamburg, Germany

Religious leaders in Hamburg urged people not to give up on peace at a memorial service Sunday for the six Jehovah’s Witnesses killed in last week’s mass shooting by a former member.

Catholic and Protestant churches organized the service, along with the Association of Christian Churches. Jehovah’s Witnesses did not attend because it is against their beliefs to participate in interfaith worship services, according to the religion’s website.

Flowers and candles are placed in front of the entrance to a Jehovah's Witness community center in Hamburg, Germany, Monday, March 13, 2023.

In a letter, the Jehovah’s Witnesses acknowledged the sympathy of fellow residents of the northern German city, according to Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

They plan to hold a memorial service of their own next week, in line with their beliefs, DW reported.

Sunday’s service was attended by local politicians as well as clergy.

“The more insurmountable the difficulties and the bleaker the prospects for security and peace seem, the more insistent our prayers must be and the more we must stand together in this city,” Catholic Archbishop Stefan Hesse was quoted as saying by DW.

Speakers including Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher paid tribute to the first responders and emergency chaplains who had rushed to the scene.

“For me, God was present — in you, dressing wounds, recovering the dead, hugging the frightened, reassuring neighbors,” Protestant Bishop Kirsten Fehrs said.

The shooting took place March 9 at a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall house of worship at about 9 p.m. local time. Seven people were killed, including the suspect and a pregnant woman’s unborn baby. Eight others were injured.

The suspect, identified by German authorities only as Philipp F., killed himself after the shooting. He had been a Jehovah’s Witness until leaving the religious group two years earlier.

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Authorities search for missing Indiana teen ‘believed to be in extreme danger’

Authorities search for missing Indiana teen ‘believed to be in extreme danger’

Indiana authorities are frantically seeking a 14-year-old boy who may be “in extreme danger” since he went missing Thursday.

The search for Scottie Dean Morris is centered around the small town of Eaton, located 76 miles from Indianapolis. It’s where he lives with his family and where he was last seen.

The missing persons report was issued Thursday for the 5-foot-4, 150-pound teen, and over the weekend more than 100 volunteers were assisting in the search. There were also two boats scouring the river, two infrared drones scouting the skies and two bloodhound teams covering the ground, the Eaton Police Department said Friday.

Scottie Dean Morris, 14, who has been missing since Thursday form his home in Eaton, Indiana and is believed to be in "extreme danger" according to authorities.

The brown-haired, blue-eyed youth was “last seen wearing black shoes, red and black shorts and a white T-shirt with writing on the front,” the police said in a Silver Alert issued Friday,. “He is believed to be in extreme danger and may require medical assistance.”

Search parties were suspended on Sunday because Indiana State Police helicopters were training infrared cameras on the search areas, police said.

“Scottie, please know we really do want to find you safe and help you anyway we can! if you read this, please contact us!” local cops stated on Facebook.

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Hard-working dad who fled war-torn Ukraine killed by drunk driver

Hard-working dad who fled war-torn Ukraine killed by drunk driver

A 40-year-old married father of two who fled war-torn Ukraine to give his family a better life was killed along a North Carolina freeway by an alleged drunk driver.

Yurii Vakhniak, remembered by a family friend as “a big, fluffy, friendly teddy bear,” was loading cars for his vehicle-shipping business along Interstate-70 on March 13 when he was struck and killed, according to local reports.

“He was a good guy who gave everything he had to his friends and his family,” pal Alex Bloom told WNCT-TV last week.

An online fundraising page set up to pay for Vakhniak’s funeral expenses described the dad as “pleasant, optimistic, happy and cheerful” and said he had moved to the US “as a result of the war in Ukraine to make a better life for himself and his family.”

Vakhniak found work in the transportation industry and started a company, Anastasia Services Inc., named for his daughter, Bloom told WNCT-TV.

“These guys work day and night to provide for their family, grow a business and achieve the American dream,” Bloom said.

“They didn’t come here to die. They came here to escape death.”

Police said the 26-year-old driver accused of killing Vakhniak, Seydina Ndiaye, has been charged with felony death by vehicle, according to the outlet.

Seydina Ndiaye was charged with felony death by vehicle, according to police.
Seydina Ndiaye was charged with felony death by vehicle, according to police.
Johnston County Sheriff’s Office

Ndiaye was allegedly driving with a revoked license and already had three prior driving while intoxicated busts, one from 2015 and two others still pending.

“We were all kind of shocked that this person is still on the streets,” Bloom said. “We want to make sure that he doesn’t kill another one of our friends.”

Vakhniak was loading vehicles from Frontline Motors in the town of Clayton onto a three-card hauler that he was delivering to Tennessee when he was killed, Bloom said.

The online fundraising page to help Vakhniak’s family had raised more than $28,000 by Sunday evening.

“Every penny which is raised by this fundraiser will go to pay for Yurri’s funeral arrangements and to help his family live without him,” the page states. “If possible, his family would like to transport his body back to Ukraine to be buried.”

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UBS rescues rival bank Credit Suisse with emergency $3 billion purchase

UBS rescues rival bank Credit Suisse with emergency $3 billion purchase

Swiss banking powerhouse UBS agreed to purchase its longtime rival Credit Suisse for around $3 billion on Sunday in an emergency deal that prevented one of the world’s biggest banks from failing.

The two Swiss banks were roughly equal as recently as 2010, but a series of bad decisions and investor fears had Credit Suisse on the brink of collapse. Even a $54 million loan from the Swiss National Bank last week couldn’t save the lender.

“Let us be clear, as far as Credit Suisse is concerned, this is an emergency rescue,” UBS Chairman Colm Kelleher said in a press release. “We have structured a transaction which will preserve the value left in the business while limiting our downside exposure.”

Colm Kelleher, Chairman UBS, attends a press conference in Bern, Switzerland, Sunday March 19, 2023.  Banking giant UBS is acquiring its smaller rival Credit Suisse in an effort to avoid further market-shaking turmoil in global banking, Swiss President Alain Berset announced on Sunday.

Swiss authorities engineered the deal and forced it through without UBS shareholder approval.

Financial institutions worldwide are struggling to restore investor confidence following the collapses of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank in the U.S. Those failures, which came within a week of each other, were the second- and third-largest bank failures in American history.

The chaotic climate made Credit Suisse “an important bellwether of fragilities in the global banking system,” according to Cornell University economist Eswar Prasad.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, 30 banks worldwide were labeled globally systemically important, and 166-year-old Credit Suisse was one of them. But that didn’t stop bank leaders from making questionable investments and a series of disastrous decisions — including spying on UBS at one point.

Experts were quick to point out that Credit Suisse had been in trouble for years, and its would-be collapse was not directly related to the U.S. banking failures.

The bank was “in trouble because it’s been in trouble for a really long time,” said economist Megan Greene of the Krull Institute. “It has a whole host of other challenges that everyone’s focusing on now because of bank wobbles in the U.S.”

With News Wire Services

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‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ stumbles with $30.5 million debut

‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ stumbles with $30.5 million debut

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” felt the fury of the marketplace in its theatrical debut this weekend. The New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. superhero movie opened to a disappointing $30.5 million from 4,071 theaters, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The “Shazam!” sequel fell short of its modest expectations ($35 million) as well as the first film in the series ($53.5 million in April 2019), and earned a place on the very low end of modern DC comics movie launches, between “Birds of Prey” ($33 million in February 2020) and “The Suicide Squad” ($26.2 million in August 2021), both of which were R-rated.

Ross Butler, from left, Adam Brody, Grace Caroline Currey, Zachary Levi, Meagan Good and D.J. Cotrona in a scene from "Shazam! Fury of the Gods."

Directed by David F. Sandberg, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” brought back Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody and Djimon Hounsou, and added Helen Mirren, Rachel Zegler and Lucy Liu. Critics, many of whom found the first film charming, were largely underwhelmed by this outing. It currently holds a 53% Rotten Tomatoes critic score.

Audiences were more positive about the sequel, giving it a B+ CinemaScore overall. Younger crowds were even more favorable.

“This movie clearly was lighter than we thought it would be,” said Jeff Goldstein, the head of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. “We know there’s a rolling spring break over the next few weeks when kids are available, which is who it’s targeted towards. We’re hopeful that we can get a big multiple.”

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” cost a reported $125 million to produce, not factoring in marketing and promotion costs. Internationally, it grossed $35 million from 77 overseas markets including China, bringing its total earnings to $65.5 million.

Meagan Good, left, and Ross Butler in a scene from "Shazam! Fury of the Gods."

The DC shop at Warner Bros. has been going through a major recalibration for the past several months, with new bosses in James Gunn and Peter Safran forging a path ahead for the DC Universe that will officially kick off with a new “Superman” in 2025. “Shazam! 2″ was one of several holdovers of the old regime, which includes “The Flash” coming in June and a new “Aquaman” in December.

“Part of our company’s total overhaul of DC with Peter Safran and James Gunn is to reset it for the future,” Goldstein said. “It’s all about the future for us.”

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Second place went to “Scream IV” in its second weekend in theaters. The horror pic, distributed by Paramount, fell 61% from its debut and added $17.5 million, bringing its domestic total to $76 million.

In its third weekend, “Creed III” grossed an additional $15.4 million to land in the No. 3 spot. The film, directed by and starring Michael B. Jordan has now earned $127.7 million in North America. “65″ and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” rounded out the top five with $5.8 million and $4.1 million, respectively.

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